The National Disability Strategy: the most comprehensive, concerted, cross-government plan ever. Is it really?

16 August 2021

On the 28 July 2021, the Government unveiled the highly anticipated National Disability Strategy (‘the strategy’). Pledged in the Government’s 2019 manifesto, the aim is to “improve the everyday lives of disabled people”. The Prime Minister described the strategy as the most comprehensive, concerted, cross-government plan relating to disability ever. A bold claim, but is it justified?
 

The strategy aimed to be a highly collaborative document. A programme of engagement, running since February 2020, included meetings with the Disability Charities Consortium (a group of 10 of the UK’s largest disability charities), meetings with the Disabled People’s Organisation Forum and meetings and discussions with disabled people about their experiences in daily life. The “UK Disability Survey” launched in January 2021 and ran until April, seeking responses from disabled people, families and carers. A conscientious start.

The project was (and continues to be) headed by the Government’s Disability Unit. Their vision for the impact of the strategy is ambitious; “to transform the everyday lives of disabled people by tackling the barriers people face”. A tantalising proposition and not necessarily an overstated aim; there are indeed a vast number of areas which central Government strategy could transform. So have The Disability Unit been able to deliver on this?

The strategy has been broken down into eight (quite sensible) themes. A helpful overview of each section can be found here:

  1. Rights and Perceptions: Removing barriers to participating fully in public and civic life and wider society 
  2. Home: Creating more accessible, adapted and safer homes
  3. Transport: Improving the accessibility and experience of everyday journeys
  4. Jobs:  Making the world of work more inclusive and accessible
  5. Education: Ensuring children and young people fulfil their potential
  6. Shopping: Creating more consumer choice and convenience
  7. Leisure: Widening access to arts, culture, sport and the great outdoors
  8. Public Services: Making access as smooth and easy as possible

After my own review, I would suggest that there are both pleasing and disappointing aspects to the strategy. I do not have the luxury of being able to list all of the “commitments” listed in the strategy (of which there are apparently over 100) but I would estimate that a fairly small number of those represent significant progress, in terms of new immediate or short term tangible benefits to the disability community.

Nonetheless, some of these actions are very welcome. To pick a few:

  • Funding for new public awareness raising campaigns in the context of tackling negative perceptions of disabled people and disability rights
  • Creation of an Access to Work Adjustments Passport to support disabled people with their transition into employment, including disabled students leaving education and allowing people to take equipment from one job to another
  • £30 million investment to accelerate the delivery of Changing Places facilities across the UK

However, important voices from the disability community have expressed their frustration at what had been predicted as a “once in a generation” strategy. The main criticisms centre on the fact that it lacks detail and rehearses ideas that already existed. Disability Rights UK CEO Kamran Mallick quite fairly said: “Disabled people have been waiting a long time for a Strategy that has meat on its bones. Despite being 120 pages long, the Strategy is disappointingly thin on immediate actions, medium-term plans and the details of longer term investment.” It is hard to argue with this. A lot of the actions are framed on the basis that proposals will be “explored”, that governmental departments will “work” towards goals and making commitments to “review” aspects of how government bodies are run.

To provide an example - one particular bugbear of mine (through the experiences of personal acquaintances and my clients) is the difficulty in accessing benefits and social welfare and healthcare more generally. Indeed, the UK Disability Survey found that 80% of disabled people who had accessed benefits and pension services said they had experienced at least some difficulties and 78% said the same in relation to accessing health services.

The strategy identified these things are a big problem - excellent. The Disability Unit said “We know that a bold response is required” - sounds good. But when we come to read the ‘next steps’, they include that the DWP is “exploring options to reduce the frequency of repeat Work Capability Assessments (WCA) and Personal Independence Payment (PIP) assessments” and the Department for Health and Social Care will “work with disabled people and disability organisations at every stage of social care reform to ensure their voices are heard and needs reflected”. Not exactly a particularly ‘bold response’.

People may ask; wasn’t the strategy supposed to have completed the exploring and reviewing stage already? Shouldn’t the strategy have already found out the answers to these questions and set out concrete actions? The answer to these questions is probably ‘yes’ and it is hard to escape the feeling that the strategy has been rushed and is incomplete.

However, looking at this optimistically, I do not think we should consign the strategy to the already full rubbish tip of well-meaning but ultimately meaningless government policies just yet. It appears quite clear to me that The Disability Unit view this document and policy as a work in progress. It is described at numerous points as a “dynamic plan” that The Disability Unit “will refresh regularly in response to disabled people’s priorities”. Indeed, progress is to be reported on every 12 months and the Government says it will “step up” engagement with disabled people going forward and welcome feedback.   

So ultimately, whether this strategy has the power to “transform” lives, as touted, remains to be seen. At the moment, it shouldn’t be controversial to say that the strategy has fallen a long way short of the rather grandiose claims that were made in the build up to its publication. As Scope Chief Executive Mark Hodgkinson said “Unless we get clear detail beyond the next 12 months, it is difficult to see how life will be significantly different for the next generation of disabled people.”

I have no particular reason to doubt the intentions of The Disability Unit and those people within it who I am sure work hard to try to improve disability policy in the UK. But as ever, the ability to see their vision realised will inevitably come down to money. I will borrow again from Mr Hodgkinson, who puts it more eloquently that I can, but such an investment should require little consideration:

“Investing in disabled people can have a hugely positive impact to our country, to our economy and to disabled people’s living standards… The money earmarked to deliver the Strategy is sadly not sufficient for long term transformational change, and in many cases is not ‘new’ money… Therefore, further investment must be prioritised as part of the upcoming spending review.”

To look on the bright side, it is the first time in a long time that there is (what appears to be) a shared vision across Government on disability. Let us hope that the Government provide those in charge of developing and enhancing the strategy with the necessary tools to do so.

Further Information

If you have any questions or concerns about the topics raised in this blog, please contact Christopher James, or any member of the Medical Negligence and Personal Injury team.

 

About the Author

Christopher James is an Associate and specialises in working with clients that have sustained a range of injuries through medical negligence and personal injury, including brain injuries, injuries arising from birth, cases of incorrect and delayed diagnosis’ and psychiatric injuries.

 

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